AN AMERICAN SPY is the third installment in Olen Steinhauer’s acclaimed Tourist series, and is arguably the most complex of the three. The Department of Tourism --- a secretive branch of the CIA --- was all but totally decimated at the close of THE NEAREST EXIT, leaving one to wonder if there would even be a follow-up. Indeed, there is, in a tale that moves back and forth in time over the course of four months, revealing much of what has gone before while tantalizingly hinting of the future.
"If we were to learn, years later, that the events of THE TOURIST, THE NEAREST EXIT and AN AMERICAN SPY actually occurred, and were quietly played out in alleys and hotel rooms around the world, I would hardly be surprised. For now, this is the closest you can get to that reality without being a part of it."
Reluctant CIA agent Milo Weaver was one of the few Travelers left standing, if not necessarily intact, upon the conclusion of THE NEAREST EXIT. As AN AMERICAN SPY begins, he is recovering from the injuries he sustained and, interestingly enough, is looking for work that will utilize his less energetic skill sets but will be outside of his prior vocational field. His mistake is his penchant for continuing to socialize with Alan Drummond, his former boss at the CIA. It was on Drummond’s watch that the Department of Tourism was decimated; as Drummond reminds himself and Weaver, a unit that had existed for decades was for all intents and purposes destroyed within the first 60 days of Drummond taking over the helm. Drummond broods plotting his revenge. One day he simply disappears, only to reappear abroad, using one of Weaver’s compromised aliases as an identity. Weaver, of course, is horrified, given that such an action jeopardizes him, not to mention his wife and daughter. He wants to be left alone, but has no choice: he must pursue Drummond and either help him or stop him.
Meanwhile, Xin Zhu, the Chinese spymaster who engineered the violent end of the Department of Tourism, is facing repercussions from his own government for his unauthorized actions, which have upset a delicate political balance that is always in flux. He must deal not only with Drummond’s actions, but also with adversarial movement within his own government. What follows is a journey through a complex but nonetheless fascinating labyrinth. Weaver finds himself compromised in several conflicting ways, while his family, whom he had hoped would be saved, are themselves missing and apparently in harm’s way. Weaver is thus compelled to act. But what can he do when action and inaction are equally dangerous, not only for him, but also for those he holds most dear?
Steinhauer must have driven himself crazy writing AN AMERICAN SPY. He spends the first half of the book quietly setting up the glass figurines, then lets the bulls loose in the second half, destroying notions and beliefs of what has gone before and rearranging the lines of demarcation among friend, foe, and others who are both and neither. He does this while carefully navigating the reader through a field of plot land mines that can, and do, go off irregularly, particularly in the second half. And while Steinhauer knows his territory well enough to keep the reader from getting lost, he does make some demands. There is a plethora of Chinese names that will cause some confusion among Western readers, at least at first.
When the curtain finally comes down at the end, one is almost required to re-read the last few pages, in order to grasp the full import of what has happened. I will not give it away --- Steinhauer worked far too long and hard on this magnificent work for me to reveal it all with a three-sentence spoiler --- but will simply note that the conclusion is as much a beginning as an ending. There is also something about the book, not to mention its predecessors, that seems to be informed and shot through with truth. If we were to learn, years later, that the events of THE TOURIST, THE NEAREST EXIT and AN AMERICAN SPY actually occurred, and were quietly played out in alleys and hotel rooms around the world, I would hardly be surprised. For now, this is the closest you can get to that reality without being a part of it.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 19, 2012